‘Prune the Moon’ volunteers preserve historic orchard trees and root future generations

At first sight, the apple trees in the historic Moon-Randolph orchard appear gnarled, spindly and unruly. Some are covered in lichen, some have hollowed out trunks and some are just a trunk and one lone branch because all of the other branches had to be removed due to disease or rot.

But there’s also beauty to be found in the 130-year-old trees that represent generations of Missoulians who have cared for the orchard.

When the trees blossom, they yield bushels of Winesap, Duchess of Oldenburg and Bitterroot McIntosh apples. In 2017, they yielded more than 1,000 pounds of apples — enough for the Homestead to give the bulk of its harvest to Western Cider, which made a hard cider that turned the first profit for the orchard in more than half a century.

However, the plentiful harvests wouldn’t be possible without the help of dedicated arborists and volunteers who care for the old and new trees at the annual Prune the Moon event.

“Because these trees are a little bit healthier than they were six years ago, they’re producing more fruit in those high mast years,” said current Homestead caretaker Caroline Stephens.

The event was started six years ago by Matthew LaRubbio, a previous Homestead caretaker who’s now one of the owners of Western Cider. LaRubbio wanted to bring the neglected trees back to health and to production.

For the first few years, a group of professional arborists used chainsaws to bring down dead and diseased wood. Now that the trees are healthier and the cuts aren’t as big or high up, volunteers are able to participate in the hands-on event and learn how to prune in the process.

“It’s an opportunity for people to take care of a place and participate in this really amazing act of historic preservation with a living object,” Stephens said. “These trees are living, but what we’re doing is preserving the history of their genetics.”

More than 30 volunteers spent the day pruning at the Homestead’s annual Prune the Moon on Saturday where local arborist Mark Vander Meer of Watershed Consulting and other experienced pruners taught volunteers the art of caring for both old and new trees.

Erica Ayling attended the event in hopes of learning to bring several apple, apricot and peach trees she inherited with her home back into production.

The trees on Ayling’s property have a legacy of their own; they were planted by the home’s previous owner, Sandra Perrin, who helped start the Missoula Farmer’s Market and wrote a book called “Organic Gardening in Cold Climates.”

“She recently passed away and I’m trying to do her legacy proud,” Ayling said.

Vander Meer showed Ayling how to make a “heading” cut by cutting off a portion of the branch just above a bud, which will eventually grow a shoot in a different direction. He explained that heading cuts can be used to get rid of limbs that crisscross or rub together, which makes the tree more vulnerable to disease. It also helps thin areas and make space for more apples to grow.

The trees at the orchard aren’t picturesque in the way most people think of commercial orchards. They’re tall and spindly, asking to be cared for and requiring their caretakers to climb ladders to reach higher branches. They’re not conventionally beautiful, but they show their age, and there’s something beautiful about that.

“It’s pretty special that they planted this that long ago and they’re still producing fruit,” LaRubbio said. “There’s so much about this orchard that is so quirky and wonky, but that’s the charm of it. These massive, gnarled old trees.”

Although the trees are in better health and able to produce fruit again, nature will eventually take its course. Thankfully, there are 13 newly-planted trees to replace the previous generation.

The new trees even share their predecessors’ genetics thanks to a series of collaborations.

Several years ago, Heritage Orchard Project, a group through Montana State University, assessed the trees at Homestead and conducted genetic testing. At that same time, LaRubbio and other caretakers collected scion wood (one-year-old wood) from the existing trees to graft onto the root of an apple tree, known as rootstock.

“It’s essentially to clone the varieties that are here on the site,” LaRubbio said. “You could graft a branch onto rootstock and it’ll grow the genetics of this tree. So then you’ve got the fruit and the trees from the orchard rather than some random Mcintosh or something.”

Ellie Duncan, a former Homestead intern, reached out to Roger Joy, an “apple tree legend” in the Bitterroot, who agreed to help graft and grow the new trees for the Homestead.

Joy grew the trees for several years until they were ready to be planted last April.

Apart from eventually caring for the new trees, Stephens and LaRubbio hope that Prune the Moon encourages volunteers to take better care of other older and neglected trees throughout the community.

“There’s this whole other art of pruning of bringing an old tree back into health and production that’s not taught in a lot of pruning workshops,” Stephens said. “That’s what we specialize in here.”